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Love in the Present Tense
Catherine Ryan Hyde

PEARL, age 13: dying lessons

One night when I was seven I watched a man die. He was on the street under my bedroom window. I was on my knees looking out. The sound, it had woke me. The window was open for air, which there was not much of, and what there was did not move. The curtain did not blow aside, and it was dark in my room, and I knew they could not see me.

The man who was going to die was on his knees. Like myself. Only with his arms out. Not up, like a stickup. Straight out, like Christ on his cross, only with his knees bent. I call him a man because I was only seven at the time. To me he looked big. Now I can remember his face, both before and after, and I know he was maybe sixteen. But I mistook him for a man.

The guys doing the killing, there were three, standing up. Laughing, which is what woke me I think. One of them had a sawed-off shotgun right in the man’s face. Sort of a man. I guess if you are about to die like that, you’re more than a boy.

Now the sort-of-man, he started to cry. Big crocodile tears. Or what they call that, anyway. Why they call them crocodile tears I don’t know. I have never seen a crocodile cry. I have never seen a crocodile. But I watched a man die. So I know some things. Only maybe they are not the best things to know.

Then the almost-dead man, he started up begging. Please, he said. Please, think of my mama. Think of the kids I ain’t even get to have yet. Please don’t do this, I’ll do anything, what do you want me to do? His shoulders shook, like a little earthquake right under the street that nobody could feel but him. His own little personal seven point one, just under his knees.

Please, he said, and the one with the sawed-off shotgun shot him in the face. Then the three, they walked off laughing. Turned the corner, laughing. I had to keep watching, because I was afraid to not watch. I was afraid to go back to bed. Because the dead sort-of-man, he would still be there. He had to be where I could see. I remember real good what he looked like after, but it’s something I do not plan to say a whole lot about. Because some things, they are plain ugly. This thing, I figure it’s bad enough I know.

After a while the cops came, and I got tired, and they were there to look and know where he was, so I went back to bed.

There is no mercy. Give up on that. Don’t ask.

I decided when my number came up someday, I would not beg. I would take my dignity with me. They say you can’t take it with you, but mostly about money and cars and such. Dignity, I think you can. And I think you will miss it sorely if you leave it behind. Anyway, we all believe what we want and that’s what I believe.

Speaking of dignity, it is dignity when you own what you did. Not pretend. So, I shot that man. Just like they think I did. I will say that now. I shot that man between the eyes, in Rosalita’s kitchen, where he stood with no pants on. Killed him with his own gun. It was my birthday that day. I was thirteen.

I knew he was a cop, but what difference is that supposed to make? Even if I could have known somehow I would die for it later. It’s always better to die later. A time like that, you have to make a fast choice, and it’s never die/not die. It’s always die now/die later. Rosalita taught me that. She said, “Girl, comes clear somebody’s number ’bout to be up, try and see it ain’t you. Let him die now, you die some other time. When your number finally come up, you’ll be ready. You’ll’ve had lotsa practice.” That made sense to me. But I don’t think that’s why I shot him.

I did not laugh or have fun.

I guess I felt some bad for it later, but at the time I don’t know what I felt. Not the half of what I should’ve, that I can say for a fact. I was not a cold person. Just alive, like everybody else, and trying to stay that way awhile longer.

I guess I felt bad later because I could’ve let go of the gun. Not pulled on it. I think if I’d just let him take it back he might not’ve hurt me or anything. But then you don’t know for a fact and you just do something and then it’s the wrong something. I worry sometimes, did I shoot him because he didn’t love me and never would? But I really think it wasn’t on purpose. Only, sometimes I see people fool themselves, so I ask myself all the same. But I don’t think I meant for it to happen. Besides, if I was to kill everybody who didn’t love me and never would, wouldn’t be nobody left on the planet but maybe Rosalita and Leonard, my little boy. Who, of course, was not even borned at the time.

This is how it was.

On account of it was my birthday, I had been almost all day looking for Mama. What one of these things has to do with the other I can’t say that I know. What I thought she would do about it being my birthday, well, she wouldn’t do nothing. That much is real clear now. But it made me look for her all the same.

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